By: Iván Beltrán
Photos: Lisa Palomino y Cristian Pinzón
When sleepless travelers encounter the spirit of this place in the Upper Guajira region of Colombia, they realize there is more here than folkloric drawings and information about its geographic coordinates. Travelers get the incredible sensation that the inside and outside have merged into one expressive and revealing landscape. Vibrating images appear, provoking the most unexpected associations in the mischievous imagination. Absence, distance, and forgetfulness, the corrosion of time, the infinite holes of memory, insularity lurking in every corner of existence, the futility and transience of man and, simultaneously, the brightness of all human enterprise, appear to wait in each centimeter of sand and every spiral of air. Then visitors sense a radical transformation, like those reported by great mystics, stubborn naturalists, meticulous geographers, and sensitive artists.
During the 1950s, the Bogotá writer Alberto Zalamea Borda captured the subverted soul of this region in all its intensity, describing for us the experience of a highborn Bogotá gentleman who delves into his own assorted polyphony to search for the other existing within him, beyond the conventions and monotonous routines of life. His novel Cuatro años a bordo de mi mismo reflects, like few “objects of art,” the radical questioning and disorder of the senses that La Guajira can provoke in an outsider.
For eight sizzling days, Colombian photographer Lisa Palomino traveled through this land of surprises to document the experience of all travelers and tourists who make this tiring journey to gain access to the “great theater” of nature.
The Infinite Sand
The absolute, eternity, a sky tricked by theological chimeras, sacred music, great poems, and indescribable emotions that bewilder the cryptic human heart, all appear to find earthly proof in the desert of the Upper Guajira. The eye cannot resist making a tireless journey and all the senses engage in a brotherly conversation with this expanse. Thirsty sea, waterless ocean; the desert, proud and all consuming, moves us and terrifies us at the same time.
In Wayuu mythology, to die and be buried in the desert is considered a ritual act of supreme importance. Many who die on other parts of the Colombian coast are brought here —often in dramatic and colorful processions— in the belief that their tombs will be perpetually in the sun. The tropical mythology of the Upper Guajira rules equally with love and death, treating both like twins in a constant struggle.
Here and there, cemeteries appear before the traveler and, like scenes from one of those 1960’s spaghetti western, they impress viewers with their macabre beauty and lyrical saudade.
The Land’s Thirst
The marriage of the sea with the sand becomes a dense spectacle that thrashes the traveler’s spirits. In the imagination and fantasy of men, the desert is a test, a natural dictatorship, where faults atone for themselves, demons suffocate, and gods are invented. The desert is seldom pictured with benevolent springs or timid streams, but in the Upper Guajira the sea and sand come together to create a surreal and even hypnotizing environment.
A Place with No Boundaries
Few travelers make it to Punta Gallinas, but almost everyone tries. The path is difficult and tedious and requires skill and resolve. This is the northernmost point of the Upper Guajira, where the nation’s imaginary border is erased; the lighthouse here is interesting for how unimpressive it is, memorable for being unmemorable.
The Colors of Man
The daily life of humans in the Upper Guajira is reflected in the textiles created here. In this region of Colombia, the weaving displays a poignant wisdom and an inventiveness approaching the great creations of the imagination. The Guajiro people place great importance on the world of dreams, and the sophisticated, dreamlike universe. Each hammock is marked with the wish that its owner sleep peacefully.
To divide up property and mark territory, the people of the Upper Guajira don’t use traditional methods like dogs, barbed fences, caretakers, or surveyors. Instead they use nature itself to define possession. Living fences, in many cases hidden works of art or unspoken expressions of power, appear time and time again and are respected by all.
As the Afternoon Flees
The sunset is a pleasure for the senses. You would have to be extremely objective, too business-like, and a realist in the worst sense of the word not to fall into rapt contemplation of the sunset here. Travelers remain suspended in a filigree of memories, feeling like prisoners to the most visceral and surprising thoughts, letting silence and amazement wash over them as the afternoon flees.
Like a Juan Gris
This landscape creates a palette of colors where you can find subtle, extremely novel, never before perceived combinations, at times reminiscent of the great demiurges of the universal arts, especially Braque, Miró, and Juan Gris; adventurers in abstraction, honored here by the poetry of nature. It is no surprise that, as a poignant and poetic gesture, many painters and sculptors come to the Upper Guajira to drink inspiration from this kingdom of sand and blizzards.
The Other Appearances
Usually, newcomers first notice the frequent, fearsome sand, but cactus, sparse bushes, stones, rocks, and wild creeping vines, like tiny sculpted deities, appear here and there, in outbreaks of sudden generosity. It’s living proof that the sap of life also runs impetuously through this lunar-like stage. And suddenly-big-bang sublime- the wildlife, the marauding and silent dances of species who have survived for centuries and add grace and mobility to the painting. Travelers like to fantasize about these unexpected emergences, which at times have a prehistoric feeling.
The Face, the Faces
And so, like an apparition in the middle of this place where nature appears self-sufficient and detached from its brutal quarrel with man, travelers encounter the human presence. Sensitive visitors may feel this presence as almost ghostly. The people here are unique and live with their environment in a way that creates a bridge full of sublime dimensions, delicate touches, and loving patience: a friendship.